May 5, 2006

A battle that doesn’t end

Cinco de Mayo under the magnifying glass of San Diego’s Chicano artists and muralists

By Pablo Jaime Sainz

This Cinco de Mayo don’t expect Chicano muralist Victor Ochoa to go celebrate with beer in hand. On the contrary. It’s more likely that on this day you find him with his brushes in hand, painting a mural in honor of Mexican hero Benito Juarez.


Artist, Mario Torero, working on a mural depicting the recent student protests.

Just like Ochoa, other Chicano artists in the region distrust the American tradition of celebrating Cinco de Mayo drinking tequila and screaming ‘Viva il Cincuo di Maio.’

For these artists, the real meaning of the holiday goes further.

“Cinco de Mayo isn’t something that took place 150 years ago,” said Ochoa, who’s one of most recognized artists in San Diego. “It’s not only a historical event that’s long gone. For me, Cinco de Mayo represents a continuous fight from Mexicans of Indigenous descent against opression and abuse and discrimination from Europeans.”

For these muralists, the historical sense is the result of the Chicano Movement from the ‘60s and ‘70s, when young Chicanos were looking for better social and educational opportunities for the community.

“During the Chicano Movement we were able to learn about the importance of our history,” said Mario Torero, a Chicano muralist of Peruvian descent. “It was there that we saw Cinco de Mayo as a metaphor of the Indigenous struggle against the foreign invaders, against White men. That’s why Cinco de Mayo represents a historical continuation of ourselves.”

Ochoa added that the recent protests against unfair and unhumane immigration policies are part of the continuing battle against the oppression of Mexicanos.

Although in San Diego there’s no mural that depicts the events from the Battle of Puebla, Ochoa said that the philosophy of struggle and liberation that surrounds Cinco de Mayo can be seen through his art.

“Art is like a weapon and part of the solution to our problems. Through art we can learn about history and learn about ourselves,” Ochoa said.

Cultural violation

The classic Cinco de Mayo full of alcohol, more than celebrating, is an insult to Mexican culture.

“It’s clearly a violation of our culture. They don’t care about the heroes of this important date. Truly, what do the new generations of Chicanos and Mexicanos know about Cinco de Mayo? I get scared by all of this. We’re losing our cultural identity,” Ochoa said.

And it’s all about marketing, he said.

“When U.S. companies decided to put emphasis on a Mexican holiday, they decided for Cinco de Mayo because for non-Spanish speakers is difficult to pronounce ‘16 de sep-tiembre.’ That’s why many Americans believe that Cinco de Mayo, and not 16 de septiembre, is Mexican Independence Day,” Ochoa said. “When we celebrate Cinco de Mayo drinking beer and other alcoholic beverages, the ones that win are the big corporations.”

Brent Beltran, publisher of the independent Calaca Press, in San Diego, said that Chicano writers that have published in that publishing house don’t pay too much attention to Cinco de Mayo because of what it represents to the majority of the population.

“I think that writers see it as a very corporate, very commercial holiday. At least none of the manuscripts I’ve received have references to this day,” he said.

Creating conciencia

For Sal Barajas, another Chicano muralist in San Diego, there’s a need to end with the ignorance about Cinco de Mayo.

“People have no conciencia,” he said.

Torero shares that opinion.

“In schools almost no one teaches our children about our history,” he said.

That’s why Torero celebrates Cinco de Mayo teaching painting workshops for children.

In his classes, Ochoa spends part of his program teaching students to paint and draw the image of Benito Juarez, the Mexican president who fought against the French army during the invassion that led to the Battle of Puebla on Cinco de Mayo. One can see that the walls of his classroom have student drawings of Juarez pasted on them.

“Benito Juarez was a Zapotec Indian, born in the state of Oaxaca, who became president of Mexico,” Ochoa said. “He had a great influence on U.S. intellectuals, and even Abraham Lincoln admired him. That’s why young people should know who Juarez was.”

Although some Mexican artists and painters consider Chicano art as ‘stereotypical’ for using images from Mexican history, such as Benito Juarez, Ochoa said that highlighting the pride for the history of our people has a social and educational goal, and he defends his work.

“Those that claim that art that has cultural and historical value is stereotypical, are only thinking that art is just esthetics. I think that it’s much more stereotypical ‘art for art’s sake,’ that type of art that doesn’t contribute anything socially,” the muralist said.

Cinco de Mayo’s legacy

Sometimes it is said that the Battle of Puebla, which took place on May 5th., 1862, was a victory in a lost war, because the French reamined in Mexico and they even established a monarchy that put Maximiliano I as emperor.

“A lost war? I don’t know what they say it was a ‘lost war,’” Ochoa said. “Do the French continue in Mexico? Do we speak French? After all, Mexicans defeated and overthrew the French from Mexico five years later.”

In some of the murals at Chicano Park, in Barrio Logan, you can see images of Benito Juarez and Ignacio Zaragoza, both heroes of Cinco de Mayo’s Batalla de Puebla.

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